RSPCA welcomes ‘organ-on-a-chip’ technology award of ‘Design of the Year’

Last night, The Design Museum in London awarded its overall top prize for 2015 to a team of scientists and engineers from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute seeking to revolutionise the way that new pharmaceutical medicines and treatments are developed and tested.

The leaders of the project team, Donald Ingber and Dan Dongeun Huh, began work on this revolutionary technology around seven years ago as it was clear that the current system for developing new treatments, which relies heavily on the use of animals, has major failings. For example, Tony Bahinski, lead senior staff scientist at the Wyss Institute, has described how many animal models are “not very predictive” of the human response, and this fact “has clearly hindered new drugs getting to patients”.

RSPCA senior scientific officer Barney Reed said: “As well as the significant ethical and animal welfare concerns associated with the use of animals in research, there is currently a lot of discussion relating to the scientific limitations of many traditional animal models and tests. There is a growing acceptance that the system of drug development needs to focus on moving to cheaper, faster and more reliable methods.”

“Organs-on-a-chip” technology offers an exciting glimpse into a future of testing new pharmaceutical drugs which allows researchers to understand and mimic human responses to treatments, without using animals. As the Wyss Institute comments: “They [organs-on-chips] stand to significantly reduce the need for animal testing by providing a faster, less expensive, less controversial and accurate means to predict whether new drug compounds will be successful in human clinical trials”.

The technology, borrowing from processes used in the computer chip industry, consists of see-through micro-devices around the size of a fingernail, lined with living human cells. Initial studies have been extremely promising and suggest this technology will be of significant value and can accurately replicate the structure, function and behaviour of the lung, gut and liver for example.

Barney continues: “The organs-on-a-chip technology has really caught the imagination and offers a tantalising glimpse of where we might be in just a few years time. A number of pharmaceutical companies are now exploring this stunning new technology to see how they can use it to increase the number of effective medicines and treatments they develop and to significantly reduce the numbers of animals they are using in this process”.

Although this technology is still in development, there is significant optimism that these chips can also eventually be linked up to form a ‘body on a chip’ which can be personalised to the tissues and cells of a particular individual. Such stunning progress would offer huge advances in the field of science and medicine.

Barney concludes: “This wonderful example illustrates what could be achieved when innovative thinkers refuse to accept that there can’t be ‘another way’ of doing things and challenge entrenched thinking and the status quo, and when these progressive visions are given the necessary resourcing.” 

Notes to editors